Monday, September 08, 2008

Picking Up Where We Left Off

OK, I’m going to cram the political stuff into this post, to spare anyone who would prefer to skip it. Posts later in the day will involve Raymond Chandler, Alec Guinness, and the like.

First, I want to thank Canadian-American reader B.C., who sent me this op-ed, which appeals to my baseline cynicism about politics, and my belief that no matter who wins this election, the U.S. isn’t going to miraculously turn everything around:
Mr. McCain said he would eliminate wasteful spending, while cutting taxes; Barack Obama said he would raise taxes on the wealthy, while cutting them on everybody else and spend a lot more money on a long list of programs. Neither approach is remotely plausible to balance the budget.

Speakers at both conventions promised to tackle the U.S. oil deficit, pledging to eliminate the country's dependence on foreign oil. The speakers were fooling themselves, or their audiences, or both.

Neither party talked about energy taxes... Neither party underscored the enormous U.S. foreign indebtedness, the result of the country's consuming more than it produces, importing more than it exports, and living on borrowed money, mostly from China.
But, I remain committed to figuring out whether Obama or McCain is the best man for the moment. That’s all we can do, right? I reiterate my history of respect for McCain. Have I come to believe that his temperament makes him a better thorn in the side of a party than a leader of a party? Absoultely. If his opponent were anyone but Obama, would I be pushing as hard as I am against him? No.

That said, I did fall into the political wormhole last week, here and elsewhere. I spent my time visiting political blogs, friends’ blogs, leaving comments that ran to hundreds of words, and reading the similarly long comments that were left in response. The debate geek in me has to vent somewhere.

A few thoughts from the experience:

Talking with my more conservative friends from Texas has been instructive. On the one hand, they keep me honest, because they’re among the smartest people I know and they don’t operate by the same assumptions that my more liberal friends do. They tend to be less idealistic, which I also tend to be (politically). They are also, to a person, not religious extremists, or even religious. When I quickly think of the first four who come to mind, I would classify them, respectively, as two atheists, a firm agnostic, and a believer who I can't remember ever bringing the subject up in a political context. So speaking on their behalf (and they’re free to correct me, of course), I don’t think any of them want to push God’s agenda through Washington.

In this year’s election, I still think they’re wrong. I also think they’re making some leaps of faith for which they would roast Democrats.

I’ve shown that I’m touchy when accused of seeing Obama as a savior. I defy the five people who have read all of my political posts to find one in which I argue that he fits that description. (Arguing that he’s the best option for the job, or that he might have the smarts and dignity to improve things doesn’t count, unless we’re radically lowering the definitional bar of “savior.”) Given that I don’t think he or McCain is going to part the waters (speaking of which, as an avid hypocrisy-watcher I loved that the Republicans mocked Obama for talk about “healing the planet” but cheered McCain for wanting to “restore the planet’s health”), the key question in my mind is who is less likely to pander to a dangerous constituency, and who is more likely to work in a spirit of unity (pardon the gauzy phrase).

This just in: There is no liberal base in this country. At least, not liberal in the sense that Romney and Giuliani and Limbaugh rant about... I’m not saying there isn’t a strict communist in a basement in Maine somewhere, or that “media elites” aren’t mostly liberal (though if you watch any mainstream media at all, the idea that they’re radically liberal is fall-down hilarious, and if you look at the last 30 years of governance in this country, the idea that they’re effectively liberal is even funnier), but there certainly aren’t enough of them to constitute a “base.” A Democrat who chose an extremely liberal running mate wouldn’t be solidifying 20% of their support, they would be committing political suicide. This is not a liberal country at the moment, except in the classical sense (an important sense, granted). This is why even the quite centrist Bill Clinton never won 50% of the vote in an election, and why he governed from the middle, though that middle wasn’t good enough for the far right, which is, famously and proudly, a base.

So, obviously, I don’t fear Obama falling into the clutches of, what . . . A revolutionary mob led by Noam Chomsky? A revivified Black Panther Party? Can we be serious, please? I am worried that if McCain takes office on religious support, we’re only feeding an already unreasonably large beast. But from what I can gather, my friends in Texas -- those who would not vote for a President Palin -- firmly believe that the past eight years of McCain’s career, and his current campaign, are a Trojan horse. That he will ride the evangelicals into office and then smite them. That somehow, he will defy the political math that says you have to have certain people in your corner in order to get anything done. That McCain will simply shed the supporters he doesn’t prefer once he’s in the Oval Office. Now who sounds like a savior?

Sarah Vowell wrote in yesterday's New York Times:
During a gubernatorial debate in 2006, Governor Palin claimed that if her daughter, then 16, were impregnated as the result of being raped, Ms. Palin would hope that the girl would “choose life,” which is a polite way of saying she would expect a tenth-grader to give birth to her rapist’s baby.

Here’s a not-so-polite fact about the United States: According to Amnesty International, a woman is raped here every six minutes.

Like his running mate, Senator McCain has been a true-blue opponent of abortion rights during his political career. Unlike his running mate, he supports the right to terminate a pregnancy in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. So does President Bush. . . . This year, Senator McCain himself didn’t bother to stand up to the right wing of his party to insist that the rape and incest exception be written into the Republican Party platform.
The thing is, McCain hasn't really stood up to the right wing of his party in eight years.

I’ll close with a comment made here last week. A reader asked if I didn’t think that McCain would be better at working across the aisle than Obama would. I mostly responded by pointing out that Obama has received the support of many Republican politicians and many intellectual conservatives. The reader responded:
As for my question, I wasn't trying to make a comment about Obama at all. I think he would be perfectly willing to work with both sides of the house. However, I just don't think the Republican party, as a whole, would ever give him that chance.
Great. So this argument goes that Democrats would be willing to work with McCain, but Republicans wouldn’t be willing to work with Obama. So, tell me again: why is any remotely moderate person supposed to be rewarding this party?


Blogger travisneal said...


I doubt you will ever be able to convince those friends of yours as long as you rely upon personality/individual issues as your argument. McCain as X all relies back to interpretations, and they will always be able to spin and/or find other facts which yield a different (trojan horse) interpretation. How about instead switching the debate up to institutions. McCain may be a maverick, but he is the GOP's maverick. If elected he will be elected because of the big R next to his name. That R will dictate his administration.

Sadly the same goes for Obama and his big D. While I sense you know this institutional game is important, your dilemma in convincing the Texas folk is all about McCain is X and Obama is Y. It's an unwinable game, which is exactly why your debate geek is drawn to it.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I find Palin’s position on abortion more logically consistent that McCain’s position, at least from the pro-life perspective. Assuming a fetus is a life (the pro-life point of view), I don’t see how the repugnant manner of its creation gives anyone the right to kill it. I understand why liberals enjoy using the rape/incest example against pro-lifers (the emotional bomb of your example of the tenth grader giving birth to her rapist’s baby).

(My own views on abortion are based on practical real-world implications rather than traditional morality or “rights.”)

I think this statement is flatly false: “The thing is, McCain hasn't really stood up to the right wing of his party in eight years.”

From another one of my earlier comments: By any fair measure, McCain has separated himself from the Republican base more than Obama has separated himself from the Democratic base. McCain was one of the first Republicans to criticize Bush’s handling of Iraq. McCain voted against Bush’s 2005 energy bill (which Obama supported). McCain differs with Bush on drilling in ANWR (we’ll see how long this holds up). He voted against the prescription drug bill. McCain favors federal funding of stem cell research. He disagrees with Bush and Republicans on climate change. He voted against Bush’s tax cuts (though, for political reasons, he later took the position that the cuts should be made permanent).

The most important issues to me are (1) national security, (2) balanced budget, (3) energy policy (alternative energy, not more drilling), and (4) limited government (no big entitlement programs). I typically vote Republican on the basis of (1) and (4). Bush completely failed on (2), (3), and (4); I’m willing to withhold judgment on (1), but it doesn’t look good.

Most commentators say that, if this election is about national security, it favors McCain; and if the election is about domestic issues, it favors Obama. For me, it’s largely the opposite. Not too surprising because I wouldn’t qualify as your typical Obama voter.

Here are my current opinions, none strongly held and all subject to change.

I favor Obama on national security. This relates to his intellect, temperament, and judgment. I think that’s more important than any particular issue that separates the two candidates.

I favor McCain on a balanced budget. Obama wants to dramatically increase spending. So does the Democratic Congress. There will be no check on Democratic power, and that’s a dangerous thing. McCain is a fiscal conservative. He voted against Bush’s tax cuts. I think that vote represents his true beliefs and, most likely, how he will govern more than his recent pledge to make the tax cuts permanent. Even if you don’t agree, one lesson of the last 16 years is the advantage of divided government. Give either party total control, and they’ll act like a bunch of drunken sailors.

I favor Obama on energy policy (which I see as an economic and national security issue more than an environmental issue). No explanation necessary. “Drill, baby, drill” make me want to spew.

On limited government, I favor McCain for the same reasons described above with respect to a balanced budget.

On a purely emotional level, I favor Obama. I liked his primary speeches. Yes, his flowery language (we are the one we have been waiting for) gave me goose bumps. But his acceptance speech scared me as it sounded like a very conventional, big spending liberal speech. I fear Obama is going after his blue collar base and leaving me behind.

Obama’s relationship to Wright also scares me. I don’t understand how anyone could have that man as a spiritual advisor, stay in that church for so many years, or let that man preside over your marriage and your children’s baptism.

As I mentioned before, I am also pissed at the liberal media. But I am trying to keep that from influencing my vote.

I would definitely vote for Obama if we had a Republican Congress. We don’t. So, now I’m in a pinch.

11:01 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I just want to say, apropos of nothing political, that my debate geek is extra happy to have two former classmates in this comments room with me. Good to hear from both of you.

Travis, I agree with your point. I'm tilting at windmills here. What can I say, I think it's fun.

And Jeff, as usual, much of what you say makes perfect sense. Your point about temperament is actually one of the biggest in my mind this year. I just love Obama's temperament, and find it completely refreshing in the way it differs from almost every major candidate of my lifetime.

As for Wright, I'm not eager to bring up that whole thing again, but I'll just say that I understand, intellectually, everyone's points about McCain needing to be political in order to gain power, needing to hold his nose in order to pander to the evangelicals and even toe the Republican line more over the past 4 years (before those 4 years, I'll grant you your point about his departing from the party), but I think that line of reasoning has to also apply to Obama, who was a young, ambitious politician in a working-class, African-American area. He needed a political base, and maybe the church helped provide that.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

If you want a change in party, without a doubt, Obama is your man.

If you want a more systemic change--if you want someone who is not beholden to his party (more accurately, someone who is less beholden to his party)--then McCain is your man.

Further supporting my earlier post, I just saw this exchange on-line:

Fox News' Chris Wallace: Now, David, McCain and Palin do have records of going up against their own parties. When has Barack Obama ever gone up against the Democratic Party in the U.S. Senate?

Obama Senior Strategist David Axelrod: ... One of the first things that Senator Obama did when he came to the U.S. Senate was push for the most far-reaching ethics reforms that we've seen since Watergate. That didn't please people on either side of the aisle, and he has done that consistently in his career. He's reached across party lines to find consensus and he's taken on his own party on issues like, like ethics reform.

You know, what was interesting about these attacks about bipartisanship and so on is that people like Dick Lugar, the very respected Republican senator from Indiana, spoke out and said, These are just partisan attacks. I've worked with Barack Obama.' They worked together on arms control. Senator Coburn in Oklahoma worked together with him on budget issues, like putting the budget on Google so we can see how our money is being spent, putting caps on the contracts around Katrina rebuilding. Senator Obama has a strong recor d of working across party lines to produce progress for people.

Wallace: But David, because you guys always talk about ethics legislation and the nuclear non-proliferation deal with Dick Lugar, I went back and looked -- both of those measures passed by unanimous consent. They were so accepted by the Senate that there was not even a vote. In fact, ethics legislation was one of the campaign promises. These were not -- if I may, if I may. These were not areas where Barack Obama went up against the leadership of his own party nearly in the way that John McCain did on campaign finance reform, on limiting interrogation of terror detainees, on immigration reform. He did not go up against his own party on either of those issues.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Jamal said...

Let me add a little balance to the Texas count. Native Texan, Obama supporter. And let me just point out a glaring example of McCain's hypocrisy that would seem to undermine the very examples used by Jeff to argue about McCain's "maverickyness." McCain has completely flipped on his own immigration and torture positions. McCain's willingness to quickly reverse himself (even saying he'd vote against his own immigration proposal) for simple political expediency argues for, not against, him being part of the problem and not the change he only recently professes.

5:59 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Couldn't agree more, Jamal. I agree with Jeff that McCain has a rich history of thumbing his nose at his party, which I respect. My fear, which I've tried to enunciate here over the past couple of weeks, is that the thumbing was convenient as a popular senator -- leading a party is a different thing, and all of his recent activity points to his leading it by compromising much of what him an admirable figure in the first place. Might the same have happened to Obama? Maybe, theoretically. But he's not in that position.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If McCain really wanted Joe Lieberman (as many pundits claim),
but the Republican Party insisted on this far-right, fanatical VP choice to make McCain electable to their base of fearful, security-demanding mother voters ...what does "standing up to the party" actually mean to McCain?

He seems now like a man divided against himself -- he has caved on the VP choice and a slippery slope awaits him.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Let’s be honest here. Both McCain and Obama have changed positions for political purposes. For example, Obama changed positions on public financing, free trade/NAFTA, gun control, Bush’s energy bill, meeting with foreign leaders, etc. I don’t think either candidate is in a position to denigrate the other for flip-flopping. There’s no discernible difference between the two candidates on the charge of flip-flopping.

Nevertheless, McCain is more of a “maverick” than Obama in the sense that he has more of a record of challenging the Republican base than Obama has of challenging the Democratic base. I think that remains true with respect to their current positions on issues.

Honestly, which candidate has challenged his base more? Look at their records. Look at their acceptance speeches.

Because, in the heat of a tight national election, McCain has succumbed to politics on a select number of issues (just like Obama), you want to disregard his entire past record and ignore the issues on which he continues to differ from the Republican base. Come on, let’s be fair.

Is McCain enough of a maverick for you or most Democrats? Probably not. But, is he more of a maverick than Obama? Without a doubt.

7:19 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

If we're going to talk about fair, Jeff, I think we need to point out that it's easier to be considered a "maverick" in today's GOP because it's much more to the extreme side of its philosophy than the Democrats currently are. But that's not really the point, either. I think it's a legitimate concern to wonder whether even a person with a long record of being a maverick, like McCain, can make use of that tendency while trying to remain in the good graces of his party as the top dog, and his choice of VP -- his first major choice since being nominated -- isn't reassuring. Obama may not be standing up to his party as much, but he simply doesn't have a similar situation: His party is not nearly as divided right now. To me -- and again, this is as an independent; obviously we won't change the minds of die-hards on either side -- the question is, would I prefer a President Obama who has a fairly conservative temperament, had been raved about by several Republicans, and leads a pretty centrist party at the moment, or a President McCain trying to please the two or three wings in his own party before he can even get around to building a larger consensus?

7:27 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I don’t agree that the GOP is much more to the extreme side of its philosophy than the Democrats. My problem with Bush isn’t that he is too conservative; it’s that he has not governed as a conservative.

Bush enacted big new entitlement programs, such as the prescription drug bill. --That’s not conservative.

Bush has more than quadrupled humanitarian aid to Africa. --That’s not conservative.

As you know, there are many Republicans (Scowcroft, Baker, etc.) who do not view Bush’s foreign policy as conservative. [That said, I’m not sure there is a clear distinction between conservative vs. liberal foreign policy.]

The most conservative thing that Bush has done is nominate Roberts and Alito. So far, they have ruled with judicial restraint rather than legislate some broad conservative agenda from the bench. That's a good thing.

I think your belief in the “extreme” GOP stems from your fear of the Christian conservatives. In his eight years in office, what has Bush done at the insistence of the “powerful” Christian base of the Republican part?

No funding for stem cell research -- check.

Increased aid to Africa -- check.

I read the media’s coverage about the power of the Christian conservatives, but I haven’t seen it. The hoopla doesn't match reality. It’s a bunch of overblown fear-mongering--just like the creationism uproar that the press created to attack Palin.

If you want to avoid the extremes of either party, I think you are better off with divided government. Who is more likely to implement the extreme agenda of his party? Who is going to have to cross party lines to get something done?

Obama (Democrat) with a Democratic House and Senate
McCain (maverick Republican) with a Democratic House and Senate.

1:47 PM  

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